By Ranger Steve Mueller
When working as a ranger at Bryce Canyon National Parks, I conducted field research on the mountain lions (cougars) in the park. During the summer months, the highest plateaus in North America were home to the lions, porcupines, and me. At 9000 feet elevation, I found tracks in one of the few areas with a surface water pond on limestone bedrock. It was a rare drinking hole for deer, lions, and other wildlife.
During the seven years I worked there, I never heard of unattended cows being taken by a lion in the national forest where ranchers grazed cows in summer. Come fall the ranchers drove cows to 6000 feet elevation. Deep snow, lack of food, and excessive cold would leave cows high, dry, and dead in winter on plateau tops.
South from the park’s Yovimpa Point one can see 80 air miles across a near wilderness to the north rim of Grand Canyon National Park. One paved road crosses the south expanse and unpaved trails zigzag the terrain. It is precarious and unknown whether a vehicle other than those with four-wheel drive and high clearance will safely succeed.
Lions follow deer south into the wilderness, or they move east off the Paunsegunt Plateau or neighboring Aquarius Plateau (10,000 feet) into Tropic Valley. Lions have legal protection but poaching occurs by ranchers who think laws do not apply to them. Lions heading east have a better chance of being poached but those heading south have better poaching avoidance. Energy companies desired to strip mine coal to the south of the park for more than 50 years instead of developing alternative energy sources. Coal proposals have been blocked but renewed pressure to strip mine is expected. Coal strip mines could eliminate lions from Bryce Canyon.
Life is difficult for predators in nature niches where they need adequate food, accessible water in an arid landscape, and places to hide. People have fears that have some justification but dangers from predators are unlikely compared to other health threats. Driving, falling from a ladder, and other threats are more likely.
Lions have few threats from animals except people but starvation and dehydration are dangerous. Ranch water impoundments can be valuable but bring lions close to people. They tend to seek water in night stillness.
While tracking a lion, I found scat and broke it apart to discover what it had been eating. Porcupine quills were present. Literature reports lions prey on porcupines and I had found physical evidence. They avoid quills by eating from the belly where no quills are present. First the lion must kill the porcupine while trying to avoid being struck by a tail swing or quills raised high on the back. Quills cannot be thrown but they dislodge easily.
Porcupines move slowly but their armor helps protects them. When quills enter skin, mouth, or tongue, the quills puff up like a balloon because air sealed inside cannot escape. Pressure from the quill’s squeezed end in the skin causes quill swelling. The sharp end that entered the skin is covered with scales like shingles on a roof that face away from the quill point. Those scales prevent easy removal because the shingles hold it fast.
To remove quills, clip them to release air pressure and pull with pliers. Do not try this with a lion because you might not survive. Pets do not seem to learn to avoid porcupines. Every dog in our family has gotten quills at least once. Ody Brook, who the sanctuary is named after, bit one in our yard one night in Bemidji, Minnesota. I did not notice until he came into the house. It is important to remove them soon. The delay allowed quills to work deep and were difficult to remove. One in his gum worked too deep to remove. One year later, I noticed something sticking out of his eyelid. A close look revealed it was the gum quill emerging. I pulled it despite Ody’s objection. That story ended well without it entering his eyeball.
I read some quills migrated into a lion’s heart and were deemed a likely cause for its death. Porcupines are moving south as forests reclaim this region. One has been seen at Ody Brook and some are resident at the Howard Christensen Nature Center. More than one has been killed on Red Pine Drive. Walk the forests at HCNC with attention to the conifers or aspens where you might see the dark lump of a porcupine.
Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at firstname.lastname@example.org – Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr. Cedar Springs, MI 49319 or call 616-696-1753.